Everything is Not “Fine”: Passive Aggressive Behavior is Destroying Your Relationships

I’ll never forget hearing a relative tell me that she would secretly add V-8 juice to her (now ex) husband’s food because he “hated” tomatoes. It seemed unbelievably cruel, dishonest and incredibly passive aggressive. Surely it had little to do with his hate for tomatoes and a whole lot more to do with her dissatisfaction with her marriage. Why else would she do that? Why do we lie, cloak our feelings, and destroy so many of our relationships?

As it turns out, while you may not secretly spike your beloved’s food with something he hates, chances are you’ve exhibited some other passive aggressive behaviors. Most of us do at some point or another. It’s not that we’re inherently bad people. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

The complexity of modern life has infused our experiences with many incredible wonders and joys. It has also separated us from one another in profound ways, leading us to feel unsupported and confused by intimacy. We can often interpret kindness as competition, and love as an attack. Most of us simply haven’t been taught how to take responsibility for our actions, and we’re afraid to speak up and say what we feel about a situation without blaming or being misunderstood. It’s also why passive aggressive behavior is so common, according to Tim Murphy, a psychologist and coauthor of Overcoming Passive-Aggression: How to Stop Hidden Anger From Spoiling Your Relationships, Career and Happiness.

Passive aggression is, for all intents and purposes, the lazy person’s way of dealing with uncomfortable situations. It is “very sneaky behavior that people can hide and deny,” says Murphy. For example, rather than saying “hell no I don’t want to go to your cousin’s Downton Abby viewing party!” we may more likely agree to go and then sulk the whole time making people feel awkward. My relative could have tried to find a healthy food her husband liked rather than sneaking tomatoes into his soup. Or she could have just accepted that it wasn’t really her problem in the first place.

But, when we make other people’s problems our own, or when we’re not quite sure what we’re feeling or how to deal with that, we can take a number of passive aggressive actions. And the classic passive aggressive behaviors: hostile jokes, procrastination, stubbornness, sullenness, lying and resistance, can become incredibly taxing on relationships—be they professional or personal.

The girl in your office who thinks you’re out to get her job may sabotage your work by failing to meet team deadlines or intentionally doing a bad job, if it could somehow impact your perceived performance. It’s enough to make you want to retaliate. But don’t, says Murphy. And don’t play dumb or take the peacemaker route, either, as you may become an even bigger dumping ground for the behavior. Instead, call it out. Ask your attacker to speak up. Let them know you don’t think they look happy about your working together and it needs to be addressed. Or suggest your partner stay home and skip the Downtown Abby party if you know he really doesn’t want to go.

I recently heard an empowering speech about our need to experience collective grief. Grieving the pains and losses in our own lives as well as the pains and losses of our planet can be a much healthier process when we do this together. When we do it alone, we’re more likely to experience deeper depression, anger and resentment. When we’re given the safe space to speak up about what’s on our minds, we will. As a society, we’re still taking baby steps towards that reality. So remember that you don’t need to defend yourself against what someone else is feeling. Those are their feelings. They own them; they are responsible for them. You are not. Remember what don Miguel Ruiz wrote inThe Four Agreements: be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, don’t make assumptions and always do your best.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger




Image: ed yourdon